Man’s inborn religious instinct tells him that there is more than the sensible world; indeed, it “never feels natural to accept only natural things,” as Chesterton said. But about the afterlife we have more than just an intuitive inkling. Throughout history there have been manifestations — some vague, others more concrete — to support this ineradicable and universal intuition.
Today, phenomena such as near-death experiences, spiritualist practices, and “channeling” or “phantom-chasing” (attempts to technologically register the presence of ghosts) attract a lot of attention. Of course, false explanations abound, and valid experiences of the paranormal can lead to superstitious beliefs and spiritually dangerous practices. Yet there are also many reliable, critically examined phenomena that are not hoaxes or products of a confused or disturbed fantasy, and neither are they to be dismissed by Christians as occultism. These must be taken seriously.
In the course of my years as a psychotherapist, I have come across several such trustworthy manifestations: people — who never had such experiences before or after — claiming to hear the voice of a deceased person, or to see him, briefly but unmistakably. The “seer” typically does not know what to think about it, but is certain it was not a dream. In some cases there are multiple witnesses.
One client related that during family meetings on Sundays after the death of her mother (probably by suicide), precisely at the time her mother, during her life, normally served a drink, there was a loud, urgent rapping on the wall of the room, exactly the rhythmic and impelling way her mother used to firmly rap on the wall when she wanted to call her (adult) children to her room. Initially, no one in the company wanted to admit that this was strange, and they searched the house in vain for natural explanations. It was a recurrent phenomenon, but only during these customary family reunions. At last, one daughter, much excited, impulsively exclaimed, “Mother! Go away!” The rapping abruptly stopped, and was never heard again. I verified the story.
Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, known for his dialogues with Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger, said that when he was a young agnostic he once experienced an unmistakable signal from the “beyond.” Exactly one year after the sudden death of his uncle (by an accident) — and, as he later found out, at the precise moment in the night he had died — Messori was awakened out of a sound sleep by the insistent ringing of the telephone. At first, he didn’t get out of bed, for the telephone was at the opposite side of the apartment and he wanted to go on sleeping; but as the ringing went on, he reluctantly rose, crossed the apartment, and took up the receiver, now fully awake. He heard the noises and crackling that at the time were typical of long-distance calls, then suddenly a loud, clear voice that couldn’t be but the voice of uncle Aldo: “Vittorio, Vittorio! I am Aldo! I’m well! I’m well! (Sto bene!)”
Although the meaning of this unexpected intervention from the afterlife is not certain, the experience cannot simply be dismissed.
In reaction to the publication of my book Hungry Souls, which deals with empirical evidence for the existence of purgatory — namely, apparitions of suffering souls and the concrete traces some of them have left (burned-in hand marks, finger prints) — readers from various countries sent me their personal experiences or those of people they know well, and at least some of these certainly seem worthy of belief. A different but very encouraging type of reaction came from persons who wrote that simple belief in purgatory never had been an issue in their life, but that now, impressed by the evidence and the neediness of the “poor souls,” they had started praying for them. Others, among them persons who had consecrated their life to God, said they had intensified their prayers and “suffrages.”
Why this observation? Because it shows that spreading the reliable stories of apparitions from the suffering souls does not only satisfy innate curiosity about the afterlife (although there is nothing amiss with this interest); it is an effective means of apostolate. Catholic parapsychology offers a body of empirical evidence that points to the existence of purgatory, deepens our understanding of it, and, above all, is a specific, powerful instrument to further the charitable devotion to the suffering souls.
The latter is clear if we consider that human compassion is aroused not so much by abstract reasoning, however truthful, as by concrete stories: visual evidence such as the beautiful burned-in hand mark of a passed-away priest in a corporale that is preserved in Czestochowa. Just as the most effective way to move people to donate a gift for the hungry souls in Africa can be to show a photograph of a helpless, starved child who looks at us with imploring eyes, it seems God more or less applies this method to spur on our charity toward the hungry souls in purgatory.
I therefore object to a priori objections to the empirical evidence for such apparitions, based on the unfounded belief that God simply “doesn’t work that way.” Some Protestants, too, have asked me if this were not promoting superstition or occultism, because their tradition excludes the notion of purgatory; others, often Catholics, in their “demythologized” ideas, simply shake off such evidence as antiquated.
Protestant skepticism can be corrected by critical study of the cases concerned, and by learning more about the distinction between true and false mysticism and about demonology. The skepticism of demythologized Catholics, on the other hand, can be corrected by insisting on the empirical, factual character of the apparitions and their objective traces, and by some philosophical reflection on the nature of human knowledge. Here on earth, we can only grasp the supernatural indirectly, by intermediary sensible perceptions and earthly images and concepts. These images/concepts are the best approximation of the supernatural that we have, so they are not purely symbolic. They really bring the supernatural nearer to us, the nearest possible: But its real reality lies beyond our intellectual powers.
The angel of Portugal appeared in Fatima as a radiant young man; of course, that perception did not but remotely reflect his angelic essence, but nevertheless it was not something purely symbolic, and there was a real communication between the seers and the angel. The same is true for souls from purgatory: They are somehow there, and in direct, personal contact with the seer. The same goes for visions of hell — remember that the Blessed Virgin gave the children a look at it — or of the abode of purgatory. Our insight into purgatory (or hell) is substantially improved by these apparitions and visions, while at the same time, paradoxically, the mystery of these places becomes ever more profound. Thus, we must gratefully learn from this “paranormal” evidence, not recklessly reject it as demonic or as medieval superstition, let alone disrespectfully scorn or caricature it as merely an illicit collection of “ghost stories.”
My book Hungry Souls presents the insights of St. Catherine of Genoa (d. 1510) as crucial for a deeper understanding of purgatory and the condition of the soul in purification; she is called the theologian and psychologist of purgatory. Nothing in her remarks disproves the trustworthiness of apparitions from purgatory and their traces, or the testimonies about purgatory given by gifted, saintly souls who mystically have visited it. It is impossible, as some have tried to do, to create a contradiction between her analysis and the reports of apparitions and mystical visits. That critique flows from a wrong view of her mystical experience.
St. Catherine experienced the state of purgatory in her body and soul the moment she was in the confessional, and radically converted. “[S]he was put in the purgatory of the purification by the fiery love of God,” as her confessor Marabotto wrote in her biography (Catherine never wrote anything; her statements were collected by him). She never visited purgatory or met any suffering souls; rather, “the fire of love in her soul made her understand how it stands with the souls” there. In the original Italian, vedeva interiormente en comprendera como stanno l’anime del purgatorio: “She looked in herself and understood the state of the souls in purgatory.” This is not the same as going to purgatory and ostensibly seeing that there are no hungry souls visiting the living on earth; indeed, no holy soul would ever want to make or be capable of making such a visit.
Those who assure us that belief in the apparition of souls (and their traces) is superstition should be aware that their category of the superstitious comprises most Church Fathers, many popes, innumerable saints, key theologians (including Sts. Augustine, Thomas, Peter Canisius, Alphonsus of Liguori, the Curé of Ars, Padre Pio, and Faustina), and the great authorities on mysticism such as the Abbot Calmet and Father Saudreau. They, and the great mass of the faithful, have always believed in these manifestations, just as they have believed in miracles and other apparitions. Behind the apparitions from purgatory they discern the hand of God.
Their judgment is right. The apparition stories in Hungry Souls, for example, have been critically examined by theologians and other experts of the dioceses where they occurred and are ecclesiastically authenticated. The “traces,” missals and pieces of cloth or wood with scorched imprints of fingers and hands, can be found in the collection of the “Museum of Purgatory” in Rome, an annex of the church that is devoted to the Sacred Heart of Suffrage. The collection was brought together from different European countries in the beginning of the 20th century by Rev. Vittore Jouët; it was part of his foundation of the Archfraternity of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage, aimed at spreading the specific devotion to the Sacred Heart as the source of all help to the souls in Purgatory (according to the revelations of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque). The items in the museum were instrumental for the propaganda of the devotion.
The location of church and museum, practically at the entrance of the Vatican, is not accidental. Pope St. Pius X actively sponsored not only the construction of the church but also protected the collection of “paranormal” objects, ensuring its continuation at a moment when it was endangered. When the collection was exhibited in a hall in the Vatican in August 1905, he paid a visit to it and showed himself content with what he had seen. Was he a sponsor of superstition?
His successor, Pope Benedict XV, was the next active protector of the archconfraternity and its works. All leading priests and prelates in this enterprise were prudent men who knew that authentic supernatural manifestations are relatively infrequent, but that we must take them seriously. They warned against the two extremes of exaggerated credulity on the one hand and narrow-minded disbelief on the other. Father Jouët’s successor, Msgr. Benedetti, knew these two polar reactions from daily experience, so to speak. Regarding the over-skeptical pole, he wrote:
Much evidence can be supplied that the souls in purgatory are “hungry” for our love, both objectively and subjectively. Allow me to refer, more or less at random, to some well-documented cases in Catholic history. In chronological order:
- Christ repeatedly showed souls in purgatory to St. Gertrude the Great (d. 1302), and she could dialogue with them. She asked one soul, “What gives you the most consolation?” The soul replied, “The prayer of my friends alleviates my torments from hour to hour.”
- St. Nicolas of Tolentino (d. 1305) several times visited purgatory. Also, many poor souls came to him on earth and begged him for holy Masses.
- The guardian angel of St. Maria Magdalena di Pazzi (d. 1607) guided her into purgatory; she, too, was frequently visited by souls who implored her help. Once she saw her brother in purgatory and remarked, “In the past, you didn’t listen to my admonitions, now I see that you want so much that I listen to you. What do you want?” The answer: Holy Masses and offered-up Communions. Note that she saw his soul in a state of hunger for her love, while he expiated in purgatory.
- St. Phillip Neri (d. 1622) used to be skeptical when told that someone had been visited by a poor soul, until such souls began appearing very often to him, imploring suffrages, or thanking him for their delivery from purgatory.
- St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (d.1690) received many visits from poor souls, noting the fervor with which they asked for the new devotion to the Sacred Heart of Suffrage.
- Blessed Anna Katharina Emmerick (d.1824) had frequent contacts with poor souls; often she heard their plaintive calls for help (and also their jubilant cries of gratitude).
- Our Lord told St. Faustina Kowalska (d.1938), “Enter into purgatory often, because they need you there.” She indeed visited purgatory and was also visited herself by souls from there (see examples in her Diary).
- Theresa Neumann, mystic (d.1962), was besieged, as it were, by souls that ardently implored her help. She called them, affectionately, “my beggar kitten.” This recalls a frequent remark of St. Joseph-Mary Escrivá (d.1975), who was very much devoted to his “friends in purgatory,” that he had the impression “as if the souls pull at my cassock.”
So there are important reasons to divulge trustworthy reports on apparitions of poor souls and on visible reminiscences of purgatory. They promote and freshen belief in purgatory as well as devotional practices for our friends there: our fellow members of the Body of Christ. They can also be very enlightening to interested non-Catholics. Learning about the “Catholic” empirical evidence of purgatory may help people discover the unsurpassed greatness and beauty of the Catholic view of the afterlife, in comparison with which all trendy superstitions are hollow, unsatisfactory, infantile. Indeed, Catholic parapsychology is not only a licit apostolic method, but one that is particularly well-suited to our paranormally interested time.